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After Buffalo, Media and Tech Can’t Look Away Any Longer

This tragedy should be a catalyst to a fundamental reckoning.
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WASHINGTON — On Thursday, Free Press Action Co-CEO Jessica J. González urged Congress to mitigate the harms resulting from social-media targeting of users based on their private demographic and behavioral data. In opening remarks during the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee hearing on “Disrupting Dangerous Algorithms,” González outlined a set of regulatory guidelines that center civil and human rights and protect democratic principles.  

“Years of research, investigative journalism, activism and whistleblower revelations have illuminated that the companies collecting that data have little to no accountability to the American people,” González writes in her submitted testimony. “They haven’t even attempted to redress the harms caused by their business models, which promote content to maximize engagement and profit handsomely from amplifying conspiracy theories and bigotry.”

Earlier this week, Free Press Action and 35 allies in the Disinfo Defense League (DDL) released a legislative platform describing steps Congress should take to adopt comprehensive digital-privacy legislation that holds social-media companies accountable for spreading disinformation that harms Black and Brown people. González’s testimony draws from the platform put forward by the network of civil-rights, racial-equity and digital-justice groups.

González’s written testimony can be found here in full. Her remarks as delivered before Congress appear below.

Regarding “Disrupting Dangerous Algorithms: Addressing the Harms of Persuasive Technology”
Jessica J. González
Dec. 9, 2021

Chairman Luján, Ranking Member Thune, members of the subcommittee: Thank you for inviting me to testify, and please accept my condolences on the passing of your former colleague, Senator Dole.

Today’s hearing calls us to address the harms of “persuasive technology.” Of course harmful and persuasive media is nothing new. As Free Press’ Media 2070 project has documented, there’s a long history of the U.S. media system spreading racist propaganda, for instance.

What’s unique about the digital age is how online platforms collect troves of private data about us and then use it to target ads, recommendations, and other content based on our perceived interests and vulnerabilities.

Sometimes this system produces innocuous or even beneficial outcomes, but as whistleblowers, journalists, researchers and activists have revealed, too often these systems cause grave harm, all while companies have little to no accountability to the American people.

Indeed, they’ve failed outright at fulfilling even the most basic requests for transparency about how their systems work. They’ve rolled out expensive PR campaigns while continuing to profit handsomely from amplifying conspiracy theories and bigotry and enabling discrimination.

Tech firms are unwilling and unfit to effectively self-govern. They’ve amplified lies about COVID and vaccines, served up housing and employment ads in discriminatory ways, amplified voter-suppression campaigns launched by foreign state actors and discouraged participation in the U.S. Census. They’ve targeted abuse at people of color, and have done a particularly poor job of addressing these problems in languages other than English.

Facebook long has known the extent to which its products harm people of color, other minority groups and our society. Its top executives have brazenly and routinely lied to or withheld the full truth from civil-rights leaders, researchers, the U.S. Congress, and the American public. This simply can’t stand.

This week, Free Press Action and allies in the Disinfo Defense League released a policy platform designed to rein in these abuses. Our main proposal for Congress is to adopt a comprehensive privacy and civil-rights bill, which ideally would enshrine nine key concepts. Congress should:

  • Limit tech’s collection and use of our personal data.
  • Establish people’s rights to control their own data.
  • Enhance data transparency.
  • Prevent discrimination by algorithms.
  • Increase platforms’ transparency about known impacts of their business models.
  • Protect whistleblowers and external researchers.
  • Expand FTC oversight.
  • Encourage collaboration across agencies that hold specialized expertise.
  • And set a federal floor for consumer protection, not a ceiling.

Fortunately, many of these elements are included in Senator Markey’s Algorithmic Justice and Online Transparency Act, which prohibits algorithms that discriminate based on protected characteristics, and establishes safety and effectiveness standards; and in the Consumer Online Privacy Rights Act, sponsored by Senators Cantwell, Schatz, Klobuchar and Markey, which penalizes platforms that abuse personal data, allows people to see the information companies collect on them, and preserves a federal private right of action. Free Press Action endorses both bills.

In addition to privacy and civil-rights safeguards, we must invest in the media system we need to support a 21st-century democracy. Senator Cantwell’s 2020 journalism report found “local journalism is essential for healthy communities, competitive marketplaces, and a thriving democracy.” I agree.

Free Press Action and the Disinfo Defense League have proposed that Congress pass legislation to tax digital advertising and direct those monies to support high-quality noncommercial and local journalism, including journalism by and serving people of color, non-English speakers, and other minority groups.

Let us make no mistake: Tech companies are undermining public health, safety, civil and human rights and our democracy. And they’re doing so by extracting and exploiting our personal data. It’s time for Congress and the FTC to act.

Thank you and I look forward to your questions.

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